U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, issued a statement Thursday pledging to introduce the Equality Act during this Congress, legislation that would extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans.
The bill would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in “employment, education, access to credit, jury service, federal funding housing, and public accommodations.”
Four previous versions were introduced in the House by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021. The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have signaled that the legislation remains a major priority despite the Republicans now exercising their majority control of the lower chamber.
With Cicilline’s planned departure from Congress on June 1 to lead the nonprofit Rhode Island Foundation, Takano thanked and credited his colleague “for his leadership on behalf of our community and stewardship of the Equality Act.”
Cicilline, who drafted the legislation and chaired the Equality Caucus in the last Congress before Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) took over this year, noted the heightened importance of the Equality Act’s passage amid the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ and especially anti-trans legislation.
“With homophobic and transphobic legislation being proposed in state legislatures across the country and here in Congress,” he said, “it is far past time we act to finally outlaw discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community by passing the Equality Act.”
The legislation is also backed by major LGBTQ advocacy groups including the nation’s largest, the Human Rights Campaign. “There is overwhelming support for this bill among the American people and the business community, and we will continue fighting until this bill is signed into law,” said the organization’s President Kelley Robinson.
Robinson also thanked Cicilline for his leadership on the bill and said the Human Rights Campaign looks forward to working with Takano, “an incredible champion for our community” who “is the perfect leader for this effort” to “build on he work Congressman Cicilline started and get the Equality Act signed into law.”
U.S. House Republicans on Friday passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, a proposal that would require public schools to share educational materials with parents and also contains provisions that would trigger the outing of LGBTQ students without their consent.
Critics say the legislation’s professed purpose, to equip parents with the information necessary for them to better engage with their children’s educators, is a pretext for its ultimate goals: For schools to censor out content addressing race, or materials containing LGBTQ characters or themes, while also discouraging LGBTQ students from being out at school.
The Congressional Equality Caucus noted the likelihood of that outcome in a statement Friday denouncing the bill, which the group’s chair, U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), called “dangerous” — pointing to its requirement for “schools to forcibly out transgender students, even if it puts those youth in harm’s way.”
“All children deserve access to a safe and affirming school environment,” Takano said in the statement. “Transgender youth have enough challenges already due to harassment, bullying, and anti-transgender state laws,” he said, adding, “My colleagues who voted for this bill should be ashamed.”
House members voted 213-208 for passage of the Parents Bill of Rights, or House Resolution 5, with Republican U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Mike Lawler (N.Y.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.) voting against the legislation with every Democratic member. The bill was first introduced by GOP Rep. Julia Letlow (La.).
With Democrats’ control of the U.S. Senate, movement on the bill will almost certainly be stopped once it reaches the upper chamber, but it may nevertheless still have a harmful impact on the country’s LGBTQ youth.
For example, the National Institutes of Health published a peer reviewed study last year that found a link between anti-trans legislation and “suicide and depression-related Internet searches” using a dataset comprising 40 bills that were introduced and reached committee, of which three were passed and signed into law.
The caucus’ statement noted HR 5 contains “two provisions that would require schools that take steps to respect a student’s gender identity to forcibly out those transgender youth to their parents” along with another that would allow parents to access their children’s answers to survey questions, answers that might include information about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The risk that their parents will be able to see their answers will incentivize many students to lie about these and other questions, which the caucus said will undermine the federal government’s ability to collect important demographic, statistical and survey data on America’s LGBTQ youth.
Exacerbating that problem is another provision in the legislation, which requires parents to “opt-in” if their children would be asked to share their sexual orientation or gender identity.
America’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, also issued a statement Friday condemning HR 5.
“The bill, which picks and chooses which families have rights and which don’t, has occupied the chamber’s time while extremist House leaders continue neglecting the very real and urgent problems facing our schools, such as gun violence, teacher shortages and educational inequality,” the group said in its statement.
HRC also noted the legislation’s potential to trigger forcible outing of LGBTQ youth “would endanger students instead of fulfilling school officials’ obligation to make judgments on a case-by-case basis in the best interests of the students under their supervision.”
The organization said it expects House Republicans to move “in coming weeks” on House Resolution 734, “a bill to ban participation by transgender youth in school sports,” and drew parallels between the Parents Bill of Rights Act and the “curriculum censorship seen in harmful, unnecessary bills passed in state legislatures recently.”
U.S. Rep. Melanie Stanbury (D-N.M.), a member of the Equality Caucus, echoed that message in her statement Friday, writing that HR 5 was “modeled after bills passed at the state level, which have censored the teaching of American history, allowed book bans, and violated the safety and privacy of transgender and LGBTQ+ students.”
The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy on Monday addressing the bill, writing “the administration does not support HR 5 in its current form because the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school” and “moreover, instead of making LGBTQI+ students feel included in their school community, it puts them at higher risk.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund published a statement Tuesday condemning the Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature’s passage of S.B. 140, a bill that will criminalize gender-affirming health care for minors.
The statement, issued by Beth Littrell, senior supervising attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBTQ and Special Litigation Practice Group, urges Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to veto S.B. 140, calling on him to not “give into pressure from his party” when “the health and wellbeing of young people are at risk” through the denial of “safe, effective medical treatment to transgender youth — based only on prejudice and political pandering.”
Kemp should “leave personal healthcare decisions in the capable hands of parents, children, and their doctors,” Littrell’s statement continues. “We hope the governor will elevate himself and the State of Georgia above this cynical partisan attack on transgender youth, medical autonomy, and parental rights.”
S.B. 140 specifically prohibits “sex reassignment surgeries, or any other surgical procedures, that are performed for the purpose of altering primary or secondary sexual characteristics” when they are “performed on a minor for the treatment of gender dysphoria.”
“Limited exceptions” are made for the treatment of conditions other than gender dysphoria, if deemed medically necessary by the physician or healthcare practitioner, and for the treatment of patients with “a medically verifiable disorder of sex development.”
The mainstream medical societies with relevant clinical expertise have repeatedly spoken out against legislation that limits access to or criminalizes, as in the case of Georgia’s bill, guideline directed interventions for the treatment of trans and gender nonconforming youth.
On March 16, far-right GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who represents Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, called for the state legislature to make the bill more restrictive.
Specifically, in a tweet she urged the lawmakers to amend S.B. 140 such that treatment of gender dysphoria in minor patients with puberty blockers would be criminalized alongside the other interventions covered in the bill and also to remove the covered exceptions.
Just a few months ago, the midterm elections saw a “rainbow wave” with a record-breaking number of LGBTQ candidates elected to public office across the country.
After statehouses and city councils and other legislative bodies opened for new business, however, within weeks it became clear that Americans can expect to see a greater number of anti-LGBTQ bills and policies in 2023 than were introduced in any year in recent memory.
Five LGBTQ officials, both newly elected and reelected, recently connected with the Washington Blade to discuss their observations from the campaign trail and experiences in elected office. They shared reactions to the spate of harmful proposals that have been introduced so far and detailed plans for advancing pro-equality legislation while fighting against anti-LGBTQ policies this year and beyond.
New Hampshire State Rep. Gerri Cannon talked with the Blade earlier this month, and newly elected Trenton (N.J.) City Councilwoman Jennifer Williams responded to written questions last week. First-time officeholders Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr and Connecticut State Treasurer Erick Russell, along with returning Colorado Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, each sat down with the Blade last month during the International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C.
The conference was hosted by the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which administers programs and trainings for elected leaders whose campaigns are supported by the LGBTQ Victory Fund political action committee. Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who serves as president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Institute, also talked to the Blade by phone earlier this month.
So diverse are the identities, backgrounds, experiences and political views of these officeholders that they shatter restrictive notions that LGBTQ candidates must fit into a certain mold or serve only in certain elected positions.
How were they treated on the campaign trail?
Zephyr, who became the first openly transgender person elected to the deep-red Montana Legislature, told the Blade she was nervous about the prospect of knocking on doors for the first time.
“There’s always that fear as a trans person that it only takes one scary moment,” she said. “But what I found was what I always knew: My community supported me and loved me.”
Many of Zephyr’s constituents, she said, “were excited to see me and to be talking to a trans woman about policy,” as well as LGBTQ issues. Many voters were eager to get into substantive discussions on topics as wonky as how policies concerning solar power might intersect with local unionization efforts, she said.
“What I saw in my community, and what I’ve seen, broadly, across Montana, is first and foremost kindness and community,” Zephyr said.
Russell, who with his election for Connecticut treasurer became the first gay Black man to serve in statewide office, said his constituents were “excited about the fact that they felt they were represented in a campaign” with many voters relating to Russell’s “humble beginnings.”
Voters were also heartened to see a younger candidate running, said Russell, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2009 and graduated from law school at the University of Connecticut in 2012.
His identity aside, “at the end of the day, we were running a campaign that was built on substance,” he said. And “people want to know that they’re going to have advocates for their communities.”
Likewise, Cannon told the Blade, “I don’t use my status as being a trans person as a lever in most cases. I’m fighting for people in my community; I’m there to do the people’s business, and I just happen to be transgender.”
“I haven’t run into anyone that’s used my status as a trans person during an election cycle,” said Cannon, who has served in the New Hampshire Legislature since 2018.
“When I ran for City Council here in Trenton,” Williams said by email, we “probably knocked on 3-4,000 doors and spoke with all kinds of people.” The questions she and her team received concerned crime, jobs, public utilities like water and roads, and Williams’ ability to work constructively with other councilmembers, she said.
Williams, who recently became Trenton, New Jersey’s first transgender city councilmember, said that voters did not ask about her gender identity or sexual orientation, nor did they bring up politically divisive topics like policies concerning the participation of trans athletes in school sports leagues or drag queen story hours.
Likewise, since her election to the city council, Williams’ Council colleagues who have been sworn in as well as her at-large colleagues who won their runoff elections last Tuesday have been supportive — “very much so,” she told the Blade.
At the same time, Williams said she encountered some challenges because of her being a Republican. It “has been an issue with some people who are beyond my immediate circle or who haven’t gotten a chance to know me and support me,” she said.
“Some of my biggest supporters are very well-known local Democrats because they have seen the LGBTQ advocacy work and civic involvement that I have done in the past,” Williams said. “They also have very good ‘ears to the ground’ and trust me, people would tell them if I had come to canvass their neighborhood and if they spoke with me.’”
Williams expressed gratitude for the “endorsement and support” she received for her candidacy from the Victory Fund as well as for her progressive and Democrat supporters, because “they took a chance on believing in me and stuck with me even when they caught some hell for doing so.”
How will they approach challenging colleagues or difficult political circumstances?
Parker told the Blade there is room for LGBTQ elected officials to make a positive impact even in the most challenging of circumstances.
“We are just as interested in seeing them be who they are and stand up and speak out in their legislatures — whether or not they can pass pro-equality legislation,” she said.
When passing pro-equality policy or batting away harmful policy is difficult, Zephyr said she expects to draw from some of the lessons she learned as an athlete: “if you put in the work, day in and day out, you will see the progress. If you trust that process and do the work, you’ll see the results.”
Most people have nuanced opinions on policy matters and are sincere in their convictions, including legislators who might not support pro-equality bills or the LGBTQ community, she said. “And I trust that if I go into those conversations, — I would even say most — of them” will engage in good faith. “To me, that’s how you change hearts and minds.”
Earlier this month, the Montana Free Press reported that during a sausage making party for Montana lawmakers, Zephyr was caught chatting amicably with Billings Republicans. She later told reporters that she enjoyed the chance to connect with her colleagues outside the Capitol building “to just hang out and talk to someone about where they grew up.”
There can often be more room for diversity, including ideological diversity, among candidates elected to state legislatures because these bodies are typically governed less by the strictures of calcified partisan politics that are difficult to overcome at the national level, Moreno told the Blade.
“It’s vastly more personal,” he said, which means “you do see a lot more cross-party collaboration” in the Legislature.
With his first election to public office in 2012, Moreno, who is gay, became one of the four LGBTQ members of the Colorado House of Representatives elected to serve that year, which was hailed by the Denver Post as “a historic first for gays.”
Zephyr and Moreno both discussed how hateful and vitriolic rhetoric informs the development and passage of harmful laws and policies — all factors that raise the likelihood of violence against LGBTQ and particularly trans people.
The painful reality of violence against the community was a top of mind for the officeholders as well as the organizers and attendees of the International LGBTQ Leaders Conference, which fell just a couple of weeks after a gunman killed five people and injured 25 in Club Q, a Colorado Springs, Colo., LGBTQ nightclub.
Moreno recalled that when he first joined the Colorado Legislature 10 years ago, as he and his colleagues were debating a bill concerning conversion therapy, “some Republican members associated being LGBTQ with being an alcoholic.”
“I took an opportunity to have a conversation with them to let them know how offensive that rhetoric is,” Moreno said. “What I think the Club Q tragedy will do is remind people to be more careful with their language, because I do think that the kind of very hateful rhetoric we’re seeing today has played a role in the instigation of violence against minority communities.”
There are some extreme state legislators in New Hampshire, Cannon said, noting last year’s proposal by Republicans to secede (in the language of the bill, New Hampshire “peaceably declares independence” from the U.S. “and proceeds as a sovereign state.”)
Asked whether these lawmakers are a “lost cause,” Cannon did not hesitate: “I would absolutely use that term,” she said, comparing them to committed anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. “They really don’t care for LGBT people; they don’t want to learn.”
However, Cannon said, “I’ve talked to Republicans who are favorable who have gotten to know trans people in the Legislature.”
Russell stressed the importance of representation: “I think the important piece is electing folks to office who are committed to fighting for our values.”
For her part, Williams joins the City Council at an interesting juncture. Following a series of ugly incidents in which previous members displayed “anti-LGBTQ bigotry and anti-Semitism,” a few years ago, “our city was crying for new start and a new City Council that would welcome, respect and affirm everyone,” she said.
Williams added that while she hopes Trenton will never again face that kind of scandal — partly because it happened when the members were working remotely and in-person meetings tend to discourage officeholders from making hateful comments to each other — “I am confident that all six of my colleagues will have my back if anything happens.”
How are they approaching policy that impacts LGBTQ constituents?
In the legislature, consistent with the approach she has employed in her prior work as an activist, Zephyr said she expects to focus her work on “making sure that we are taking action behind the scenes” to make sure each measure carrying a pro-equality message also carries a pro-equality impact.
For example, she said, passing a nondiscrimination ordinance is commendable, but when residents have cause to file a complaint, is there an accessible and effective means for them to do so?
Among the work Zephyr has done since she was seated has been the introduction of bills to ban the “gay and trans panic defense” and protect same-sex adoptive parents. She has also been a vocal critic of her Republican colleagues’ move to table Democrats’ proposal to allow police to temporarily take firearms from those deemed by a court as a danger to themselves or others.
The Club Q shooting provides for the opportunity for Colorado to build upon its already strong gun safety laws, such as by passing an assault weapons ban and achieving universal implementation of the state’s “red flag law,” Moreno told the Blade, adding that “we’re going to explore some of that in this next [now current] legislative session.”
Democratic state lawmakers in Colorado introduced an assault weapons earlier this month. With expanded Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature serving with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who is gay, the state is in a position to pass more progressive legislation across the board, Moreno said.
In New Hampshire, Cannon has proposed a bill to make it easier for residents to change the sex listed on their birth records, having previously introduced the proposal to allow for people to change the sex listed on their driver’s licenses and state-issued IDs with the option to check a box for “nonbinary.” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed that bill into law and it went into effect in 2020.
Despite his support for that proposal, Cannon said Sununu pushed back against a previous version of her birth records bill because it had included an option to identify as nonbinary. She told the Blade she has reintroduced the measure this year without that provision, with the expectation that its success will provide for an opportunity to make it more inclusive in the future.
In her position on the school board, too, where until recently she served concurrently, Cannon focused her approach on working towards incremental change — voting, for instance, for a proposal that allows students to use restrooms and facilities that align with their gender identities even though it requires parental permission, therefore excluding trans students who are not out and supported at home.
“Getting that policy in place will open the door in the future” for a more inclusive policy, Cannon said.
Another bill introduced by Cannon, which was modeled after California’s, would make New Hampshire a sanctuary for LGBTQ families to escape prosecution in states that have criminalized parents for facilitating their children’s access to medically necessary and guideline directed medical treatments for gender dysphoria.
Parker noted that these types of bills were a major topic discussed by LGBTQ legislators when they convened for programs hosted by the Victory Institute.
Republicans, meanwhile, including Cannon’s GOP colleagues, are continuing to advance proposals to outlaw healthcare for minors for the treatment of gender dysphoria.
“I’m speaking out against the [GOP’s] healthcare bill, flagging it as discriminatory and in violation of HIPPA rights,” Cannon said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which prohibits the disclosure of sensitive health information without the patient or guardian’s consent or knowledge.
“You have to be able to use medical information to prosecute a family [for facilitating access to gender affirming healthcare],” Cannon said, adding constitutional issues might also be raised under the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
Cannon is confident she will be able to convince enough of her Republican colleagues to table the bill so it never reaches a vote, adding that she expects Sununu would veto the proposal should it ever reach his desk.
Others see room to leverage their backgrounds to make positive impacts elsewhere
Williams told the Blade that apart from bringing back Pride weekend celebrations that were on pause during the pandemic, Trenton does not have any LGBTQ-specific policy matters on the horizon.
“I think that is due to our being the capital of a very protective state that has strong LGBTQ protections written into law,” she said.
At the same time, she said, “my lived experience as a LGBTQ person informs me in many ways that correlate with the experiences of other marginalized groups,” Williams said.
“From issues ranging from youth homelessness to economics to law enforcement, LGBTQ people can bring much to government and its decision-making that can benefit everyone,” she said.
Likewise, Russell said, “being an advocate for LGBTQ rights and issues is going to be something that I will continue to do in my role” as treasurer. “But I think the there are opportunities for there to be overlap with a lot of different things.”
For instance, the attacks on LGBTQ rights come alongside efforts to abridge women’s reproductive freedoms. “One of the policies that I built through the campaign and worked with some legislators and nonprofits on was the creation of a safe harbor fund within the treasurer’s office,” Russell said.
“It would ultimately be a fund that we would put in place, and it would be used to help individuals traveling from anti-choice states who needed to access safe reproductive health care,” he said.
Other matters on Russell’s agenda will impact all residents in Connecticut, policies like “baby bonds, which was passed in our Legislature,” and will provide publicly funded trust accounts for every new child. Another priority is “expanding financial literacy programs so that we [will] have young folks who are coming out of school who know how to manage money,” he said.
Anti-LGBTQ bills, motivated by prejudice, will help no one
Whatever their putative purpose might be, Cannon stressed that the impact of anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed by her colleagues is often a solution in search of a problem — a message that was echoed by Parker and Williams.
“In New Hampshire, the trans population is one-tenth of one percent,” she said. Nevertheless, “We have people trying to put forth legislation against the trans community when we’re such a small community of people.”
Likewise, regarding the debate over her proposal to allow residents to change the gender listed in their birth records, Cannon said, “the number of people born in the state who want to change their birth records is incredibly small,” while, “many of us who were born outside the state already had our information changed.”
Zephyr stressed the ways in which anti-LGBTQ bills are based on lies about LGBTQ people.
She pointed to a proposal in the Montana Legislature that would prohibit minors from attending drag shows, which comes from the baseless smear propagated on the right that organizers of and participants in all-ages drag performances are sexually abusing or exploiting children.
Bills like these are “not a matter of logic or facts or information,” Parker told the Blade, but rather are intended as politically motivated attacks on the LGBTQ community. It’s “political theatre” cooked up by “right wing think tanks that circulate these bills to legislators around the country,” she said.
Russell noted how unpopular these policies are, broadly speaking. “Republicans are really using these campaigns to target trans kids, for instance, or to create these kinds of social wars around issues that the large majority of Americans believe that people should have the freedom and right to be who they are, and love who they love, and express themselves how they want to,” he said.
Williams sees both political opportunism and sincere bigotry motivating these anti-LGBTQ proposals: “There is definitely some hard-core prejudice behind some of these bills, but for many of these bills’ sponsors I believe they feel that they have put forth anti-LGBTQ legislation because they think they need to do so for their ‘conservative street cred’ and to raise money or gain a few percentage points in a primary.”
“There are definitely some Republican legislators who believe their legislation will solve problems that don’t exist,” Williams said. “I also learned that there are more moderate Republicans will to push against such bad legislation, but they need support to help defend themselves when they get attacked for supporting LGBTQ people and in particular, trans kids.”
Parker has had first-hand experience dealing with anti-LGBTQ legislation when serving as mayor of Houston from 2010-2016, during which time, as an out lesbian, she was one of the first openly LGBTQ mayors of a major U.S. city.
In 2015, when voters repealed a broad nondiscrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation and gender identity, “it was about fear,” Parker said, stoked in large part by “the smear that trans women are sexual predators.”
She added that the effect of anti-LGBTQ bills can be both harmful and performative at the same time, pointing to efforts by conservative lawmakers to ban books that contain LGBTQ characters or themes.
“We [in the the LGBTQ community] have fought so hard to have affirming depictions of our lives in books and other media, so, to have books about LGBT lives removed from school libraries is really frustrating,” Parker said.
Particularly after the bills addressing “performative culture war stuff,” including book bans, are signed into law, she said, it often becomes clear that their proponents had failed to consider what that their implementation will look like in practice, perhaps in many cases because they did not expect the proposals to succeed in the first place.
From anti-LGBTQ laws to the onerous abortion restrictions that have been passed by many conservative states, GOP legislators are discovering the unintended and unforeseen consequences of poorly-construed policies and suffering the backlash from voters, Parker said. “It’s like the dog who chased the car.”
President Joe Biden signed a sweeping executive order on Thursday that recommits his administration to the fight for racial equity and support for underserved communities that were central to Executive Order 13985, the policy the president signed on his first day in office.
Both executive orders are broad in scope and detailed in practice, demanding a “whole of government approach” to root out and remedy the systemic racism that is baked into American institutions, including the federal government.
In a fact sheet accompanying Thursday’s Executive Order on Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through The Federal Government, the White House said that despite progress under the Biden-Harris administration over the last two years, “underserved communities — many of whom have endured generations of discrimination and disinvestment — still confront unacceptable barriers to equal opportunity and the American dream.”
The White House further notes in the new executive order that its mandate is complemented by Executive Order 14035 of June 25, 2021 (“Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce”).
The new document includes mention of the historic achievements for LGBTQ Americans during the Biden-Harris administration:
“We have taken historic steps to advance full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) Americans, including by ending the ban on transgender service members in our military; prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics across Federal programs; and signing into law the Respect for Marriage Act (Public Law 117-228) to preserve protections for the rights of same-sex and interracial couples.
My administration is also implementing the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality to ensure that all people, regardless of gender, have the opportunity to realize their full potential.”
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Chiraag Bains, Biden’s deputy assistant for racial justice and equity, said “this is about racial equity, but it is about equity more broadly as well, and that includes for LGBTQI+ Americans as well.”
Bains noted the timeliness of the new executive order as Republican state legislators have issued a record breaking number of anti-LGBTQ bills, overwhelmingly targeting the transgender community.
He acknowledged these matters are “a matter of life and death,” pointing to the shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo., last November.
Thursday’s executive order also stipulates that “in September 2023, and on an annual basis thereafter, concurrent with the agencies’ submission to [the Office of Management and Budget] for the president’s budget, agency heads shall submit an Equity Action Plan to the Steering Committee.”
Among the equity action plans will be one to “include actions to advance equity” pursuant to June 2022’s Executive Order on Advancing Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Individuals.
When the Washington Blade connected with activist and legislative researcher Erin Reed on Tuesday to discuss the new anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in statehouses across the country, it was just as the news of an especially hateful proposal came across her desk.
Senators in West Virginia had teed up an anti-trans law that would criminalize “displays” that “shall include, but not be limited to, any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances, or display to any minor.”
The move recalled anti-LGBTQ laws from the 1960s that criminalized the very existence of transgender and gender non-conforming persons as well as drag performers, while providing pretexts for police raids of LGBTQ establishments like the Stonewall Inn, Reed said.
For example, she said, many states once enforced dress codes that required people to wear at least three articles of clothing consistent with their sex assigned at birth.
Likewise, the West Virginia bill raises alarming questions about whether transgender parents and teachers in the state might be prosecuted, with a potential five-year prison sentence, said Reed, who is herself a transgender parent.
Additionally, the proposed legislation is “unconstitutionally vague,” written so broadly that it would presumably become illegal to screen the film “Mrs. Doubtfire” or perform certain Shakespearen plays for an audience of minors if the measure were to pass, Reed said.
Less than three weeks into 2023, state legislatures have introduced nearly as many anti-LGBTQ bills as were introduced in the entirety of last year – and qualitatively, many of these new bills are more hateful than anything we have seen in decades, Reed said.
“I see an increase in both the number and in the cruelty towards transgender people,” she said.
There are “new pieces of proposed legislation that go further than bills in 2021 and 2022,” such as by “banning gender affirming care through age 26 in Oklahoma,” and others that “target the drag community in ways that haven’t happened in 30 to 40 years.”
Fear and hate mongering over all-ages drag performances has been ratcheted up in the right-wing ecosystem, fueled by conservative media figures like Matt Walsh and Tucker Carlson, as well as social media accounts like Libs of TikTok and extremist militias, Reed said.
According to the ACLU, “As drag reality competitions and drag brunches become increasingly popular, backlash in the form of armed protests and intimidation of drag performers has followed.”
Consequently, Reed said, this year for the first time anti-LGBTQ legislation has included measures targeting drag performances – with, so far, a dozen new bills. And the concern is not just that many of these proposed laws are draconian, like Nebraska’s bill that would prohibit patrons younger than 21 from attending a drag show.
“Whenever I see those [laws] being proposed, I also see militant organizations storming in” to LGBTQ bars, schools, hospitals, and venues that host drag queen story hours, Reed said. “I see people trying to break into drag events and successfully doing so,” disrupting them with violence and intimidation, she said.
“What I read into [the impetus behind these laws] is these legislators want to change the uniform of the people doing the storming,” from militias comprised of far-right citizens to “people wearing badges.”
Making matters worse, Reed said, there are “lots of cases where drag events have asked for local protection and not received any protection whatsoever.”
Last month, organizers of a drag queen story hour-style event in Columbus, Ohio, had to cancel after they said police failed to work with them to protect participants from demonstrators affiliated with far-right groups like the violent neo-fascist Proud Boys. (Police dispute the organizers’ account of events.)
The ACLU notes that, “Amidst this wave of anti-drag legislation and violence, drag performers and host venues across the country are moving to higher security or cancel performances altogether.”
Looking at the slate of new statewide legislative proposals, many are a continuation of similar anti-trans themes that have emerged in recent years, but “we’re seeing scary attempts to escalate things,” Reed said.
For instance, bills that restrict or prohibit guideline-directed healthcare for transgender and gender non-conforming youth were introduced and passed in several states in 2021 and 2022, but new measures proposed this year would target adults as old as 26.
“It makes me wonder what their ultimate goal is,” Reed said. “To ban transitions entirely?”
Every mainstream medical organization with relevant clinical expertise recommends age-directed gender affirming care according to clinical practice guidelines that are supported by a bevy of research and updated regularly to ensure best practices.
Still, right-wing figures have demagogued the issue and characterized responsible medical care as “experimentation” and child abuse.
Reed noted there are some “new wrinkles” in anti-trans healthcare bans that have been proposed this year.
For instance, she said, Indiana proposed folding gender affirming care into practices that would be outlawed under a conversion therapy ban – thereby conflating supportive and medically necessary healthcare with an abusive, ineffective practice that has been rejected by mainstream science and medicine.
Across the board, Reed noted, there is an increasing reliance on executive authority. This was previewed toward the end of last year, she said, pointing to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s weaponization of the state medical board and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s weaponization of the Department of Family and Protective Services to, respectively, ban gender affirming care and prosecute parents for child abuse for facilitating their trans children’s access to gender affirming care.
‘The fight is on the state level right now‘
Amid the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation, Reed emphasized the need for coordinated action by the U.S. Congress, the Biden-Harris White House, progressive and pro-equality legal actors, and state legislatures, as well as local and national LGBTQ groups.
She noted that pro-equality interests have focused significant time, attention, and money urging Congress to pass the Equality Act, which is commendable and necessary, while the courts can provide (and, often, have provided) a path toward effectuating pro-equality policy.
At the same time, Reed said, for the foreseeable future federal legislators are unlikely to find a path forward for any major bills impacting LGBTQ people, while relying on the judiciary – particularly with the U.S. Supreme Court as it is currently construed – is far from a safe bet.
By contrast, “at the state level, we’ve seen the GOP focus time and attention and money and efforts on changing state laws,” she said, adding, “it’s important that we do the same.”
Likewise, Reed said, “I also think we really need to support our local LGBT organizations and help lift them up as much as possible,” particularly those located in more conservative and rural states, which largely do not earn commensurate resources and support.
“In places like North Dakota and Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia, we need to help the people who live there,” Reed said, but also in blue states where significant progress toward LGBTQ equality has been made but there is still room for improvement. “Don’t neglect your own backyard.”
For instance, she said, the gay and trans panic defense is still legal in some progressive states.
“One of the biggest problems for people in some of these states criminalizing [healthcare for trans people] is they don’t have resources to travel out of state,” Reed said, noting that POLITICO has reported on the plights of people who have been forced to flee states with anti-trans laws.
And while “We have to take care of those people,” Reed said, people should not be in a position where they must flee their home states. “We need federal action and federal protections,” she said.
Thankfully, there is some movement on pro-LGBTQ state bills. Reed said she has seen more this year compared to last year, which is “a bit promising.” She highlighted bills such as the proposal to protect gender affirming care in Maryland, access to bathrooms for trans youth in Minnesota, the ability to change information on birth certificates in West Virginia, and adoption by trans parents in Montana.
The Nassau County Republican Committee convened a press conference in New York on Wednesday to demand the immediate resignation of disgraced gay freshman GOP Rep. George Santos.
“He has no place in the Nassau County Republican Committee nor in elected office,” said Joseph Cairo, chair of the county’s GOP political committee. “We do not consider him one of our congresspeople.”
“I join with you and my colleagues in saying Santos does not have the ability to serve in the House and should resign,” said U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), addressing the audience virtually from Washington.
Cairo and other speakers noted the multiple investigations of Santos reportedly underway by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, and the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Santos’ office did not return requests for comment regarding Wednesday’s press conference. Shortly after the event, however, he told ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott that he would not resign.
Santos then published a brief statement on Twitter: “I was elected to serve the people of #NY03 not the party and politicians, I remain committed to doing that and regret to hear that local officials refuse to work with my office to deliver results to keep our community safe and lower the cost of living. I will NOT resign!”
About 150 protesters gathered around Santos’ in-district office on Sunday to demand his resignation, including Robert Zimmerman, his Democratic challenger in the 2022 midterm elections.
On Monday, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint against Santos and his campaign with the Federal Election Commission, while Democratic U.S. Reps. Ritchie Torres and Daniel Goldman of New York filed a complaint with the House Committee on Ethics Tuesday.
When House Republicans passed a rules package over the weekend that severely weakens the ability of the House Ethics Committee to investigate members of Congress, Santos called the move “fantastic.”
Several speakers on Wednesday admonished Santos for lying about his grandparents having survived the Holocaust, noting how hurtful that was for so many of his constituents who have personal and familial ties to the genocide.
Others lamented the ceaseless news coverage that has revealed more and more information about lies and misrepresentations Santos has made.
Hempstead, N.Y., Town Supervisor Don Clavin said, “You see a unified voice here. [Santos has] unified the county in their opposition to him. He’s a national joke, he’s an international joke, but this joke has got to go. Not tomorrow, not next week, today.”
“Our vetting process has to go much deeper,” Cairo said, adding that he was personally deceived by Santos, who claimed to have been a volleyball star at Baruch College — an institution where, the New York Times revealed several weeks ago, Santos was never enrolled.
Cairo said he has not spoken about Santos with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, “but all of our elected officials have spoken today and we’re calling for his resignation and we’ll pass that along to the Speaker.”
Charles Moran, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, America’s largest LGBTQ conservative group, shared a statement with the Washington Blade:
“We are closely following the evolving story on George Santos and are listening to our local Log Cabin membership, the GOP leadership in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, and ultimately, the voters themselves.
“It has been widely reported that House GOP leadership will also be holding their own internal conversations about George’s continuing responsibilities in Congress, and we look forward to hearing their response.”
The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus announced Monday that gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) will serve as the new chair for the 118th Congress, replacing outgoing chair Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will continue to serve as a co-chair.
The chair position “rotates every Congress between the Caucus’ openly LGBTQI+ members based on seniority,” according to a press release from the Caucus announcing Pocan’s appointment.
“We are witnessing a dangerous increase in anti-LGBTQI+ hate, legislation, and violence that we must forcibly push back against and defeat,” said Pocan in a statement.
The Equality Caucus will do everything in our power to defeat anti-LGBTQI+ bills and amendments proposed by extremist anti-LGBTQI+ politicians this Congress, especially those targeting our transgender and nonbinary community members.”
The Equality Caucus was founded in 2008 by then-Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), now the state’s junior senator, and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). As of the 117th Congress, there were 175 members – a 92 percent increase in membership from 2009.
The group is historically co-chaired by openly LGBTQ members of the House, with membership open to LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ members from either party.
In the last Congress, the Caucus’s Transgender Equality Task Force was chaired by Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Marie Newman (Ill.), and Jennifer Wexton (Va.).
“With the support of our 175 members, we were able to celebrate many accomplishments in our pursuit towards achieving full equality for LGBTQI+ people, including House passage of the Equality Act and the Global Respect Act, increased funding for LGBTQI+ priorities at home and abroad, and, most recently, the President signing the Respect for Marriage Act into law,” said Cicilline in a statement.
The appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2023 released by Congress on Tuesday contains an additional $100 million for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States initiative.
Among other programs, the funding will strengthen efforts to increase the adoption of preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to reduce the risk of new HIV infections.
In a press release, the HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute celebrated the boost from Congress but noted that more must be done — including a national PrEP program.
“The increases will help expand HIV programs in the targeted jurisdictions most impacted by HIV,” said Carl Schmid, the group’s executive director. However, “given that Congress again has not fully funded the initiative and has not provided dedicated funding for a national PrEP program, ending HIV by 2030 will be in serious jeopardy.”
President Joe Biden has proposed a $9.8 billion 10-year national PrEP program, which is widely considered a crucial step in addressing the gaps in access to the HIV prevention drugs among, particularly, Black and Latino gay men and Black women.
HHS’s Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States program, launched in 2019 under President Donald Trump, aims to bring the number of new HIV infections down 90 per cent by 2030 through investing in key strategies for prevention and treatment.
The initiative is coordinated with several other federal agencies: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Indian Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, and the Office of the HHS Assistant Secretary for Health and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute’s press release notes Tuesday’s appropriations bill will be the final spending package passed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) serving as Democratic leader.
Pelosi, in her first speech as a congresswoman in 1987, said to her colleagues that “now we must take leadership of course in the crisis of AIDS.”
“The speaker’s work on this issue continued through her time in leadership, including her passage of foreign aid packages, the Affordable Care Act, and funding for the HHS’s Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States program,” said the HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute press release.
The results of this year’s midterm elections showed a tendency among American voters to rebuke extremism from the right, whether it took the form of denying the results of democratic elections or denying women’s reproductive freedoms.
For the LGBTQ community and its allies, it was also a repudiation of attacks from some far-right GOP candidates on trans people, particularly trans youth.
Virginia would not have reelected Democratic Reps. Jennifer Wexton and Abigail Spanberger “if transphobic attacks that are geared toward and about kids were an effective message and an effective persuasion message,” Virginia Delegate Danica Roem told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.
Transphobic campaigns led by the congresswomen’s Republican challengers cost them Virginia’s Prince William County, said Roem, who would become the second openly trans state senator in the country if she is elected in next year’s race to represent Virginia’s 30thSenate District.
Republicans in the state went as far as to weaponize a sexual assault case to attack trans students – by lying about the gender identity of the perpetrator, Roem said.
Last year, the mother of a boy who was charged with sexually assaulting a girl in a Loudoun County high school told The Daily Mail, “First of all, he is not transgender…And I think this is all doing an extreme disservice to those students who actually identify as transgender.”
It is not just in the DC-Maryland-Virginia region that voters rejected transphobic attacks during this election cycle, Roem said. GOP candidates tried this approach in Michigan and Wisconsin, leading to the reelection of Democratic Governors Tony Evers and Gretchen Whitmer, who will enjoy the state’s first Democratic trifecta in 40 years, Roem said.
“Across the country anti-equality opponents tried to win close races by persuading swing voters that trans kids were a danger – a group of people that needed to be bullied and attacked,” said Geoff Wetrosky, campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ organization.
“And it failed for them as a strategy, in places from Michigan to Kansas, where close races ended up going to the pro-equality candidates not despite these attacks but because of them,” Wetrosky told the Blade.
“Voters did not appreciate candidates singling out trans kids and speaking propaganda and stigma to rile up extreme members of their base,” he added.
Wetrosky recounted how parents in Arizona had received an anti-trans mailer that was disseminated by former Trump administration official Stephen Miller’s organization America First Legal and reacted by “showing up to the polls for their trans kid but also to show that communities of color could not be split from LGBTQ folks.”
It would be inaccurate to say that Republican gubernatorial candidates like Florida’s Ron DeSantis or South Dakota’s Kristi Noem were reelected because of their open hostility toward trans youth, Wetrosky contends, because we saw that strategy backfire elsewhere.
In terms of attacking trans candidates running for elected office over their gender identities, “the right still tries to use these tactics but it’s harder and harder to manufacture a boogeyman,” LGBTQ Victory Fund and LGBTQ Victory Institute President & CEO Annise Parker told the Blade by phone on Tuesday.
Parker agreed with Wetrosky’s position that much of the transphobia seen from Republican officeholders is meant to appeal to the most extreme elements of the base of the party, for the purpose of raising the profiles of those with national political ambitions.